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Book Review: Discovering the Motorcycle

Discovering the MotorcycleFull disclosure: I have some personal involvement in Armand Ensanian’s impressive new book, Discovering the Motorcycle: The History. The Culture. The Machines. Since 1887. I first spoke with Armand sometime in mid-2015, when he called asking if I’d be willing to spend some time talking with him about a book he was writing about motorcycles and the history of motorcycling.

His proposal was ambitious. He didn’t want to just explore a corner of motorcycling; he wanted to explore the entire universe of motorcycling, from its history to its culture to the machines themselves. I have to admit that I listened with a bit of skepticism as he laid out his planned book, because while he had experience in the publishing world, he’d certainly never done anything like this. The almost encyclopedic tome he proposed was no small project. Acquiring and parsing the necessary information was in itself a formidable task; pulling it together in a compelling and coherent way that will draw new and long-time riders — and perhaps more importantly, non-riders — to its pages quite another. I’ve fielded more than a few calls from would-be book authors, but Armand was different, his enthusiasm and love for motorcycles and motorcycling approachable and clear. Before I knew it, I had agreed to review his manuscript for publication and write its foreword.

When Armand sent me an early version of the manuscript to review, it became clear just how serious he was about making this book a reality and just how capable he was of seeing that reality through. What follows is my foreword for Armand’s book. While not a typical review, it expresses, I hope, my appreciation for what Armand has done, self-funded, working basically alone and without the benefit of a supportive publisher. — Richard Backus

Foreword to Discovering the Motorcycle

In developed nations like the United States, very few of us ride motorcycles because we have to. We ride because we want to. We ride for the fun, for the freedom, for the opportunity to separate ourselves from the hordes of cars jostling for position on the highway, their anonymous occupants insulated and indifferent to the world around them. Motorcycling requires exposure, and exposure requires assessing and engaging the world around you. In a car, you view the world from a distance, through a television screen. On a motorcycle, there is no screen.

Starting with the first machines at the turn of the last century, riders discovered the singular experience that is motorcycling. While early automobiles were mostly open to the elements, they aspired to cosset and pamper their occupants. The motorcycle was different. It thrust its pilot out into the open, and if there was luxury, it was the luxury of speed and individual control. The appeal of the motorcycle to independent-minded men and women was immediate, and the freedom of two wheels intoxicating. They became enthusiasts, and their enthusiasm was infectious, driving a sport and an industry that has shaped how we live and look at the world.

Armand Ensanian is the consummate motorcycle enthusiast, and perhaps the perfect person to tell the tale of motorcycles and motorcycling. His love affair with motorcycles started as a teenager with a ride up and down the East Coast on a Honda CB160. He was, to put it lightly, smitten, and since then he’s been drawn by every aspect of motorcycling, from its history to the bikes and the people who ride them. A former columnist for Popular Mechanics and photo journalist, Armand is both rider and writer. Motorcycles have been his vocation and his avocation, and he appreciates deeply, enthusiastically, that motorcycles are much more than simply two-wheeled transportation. They are a window to the world, a world Armand has spent his life embracing and exploring.

Discovering the Motorcycle is much more than just a history book or a simple overview of motorcycling. The title is apt, for this is a discovery, a detailed and deeply insightful look at everything that has made and makes motorcycling what it is. The history of motorcycles isn’t just about the machines; it’s also about the social forces and historic events that have defined our interest in motorcycles. The infamous 1947 Hollister motorcycle “riot” painted motorcyclists as reckless and drunken hooligans, yet the motorcycle has made great contributions to society, employed by the tens of thousands to support troops and ferry messengers across seemingly impenetrable battle lines during World Wars I and II.

The old joke goes that motorcycle racing started as soon as the first and second motorcyclists met, and it’s probably not far off the truth. Competition has always been central to motorcycling, and from the earliest days riders pitted themselves against each other at breakneck speeds. The famed board tracks that once dotted the country were the coliseums of a new age, drawing aspiring competitors who tested their nerve against man and machine. The quest to prove who was best on two wheels launched the famed Isle of Man TT and more, and men like Erwin “Cannonball” Baker made daring cross-country endurance runs on “roads” that were little more than cow trails.

Those were heady days, made all the more amazing considering the primitive state of technology in the early years of motorcycling. The earliest engines were crude devices, and the machines they powered little more than bicycles. Manufacturers were limited by the technology of the time, but they were innovators, adapting and introducing new technologies as they could to make better, faster, more competent machines.

The “standard” was the basic motorcycle recipe for years, but technology fostered increasingly specialized motorcycles. Constantly looking for new ways to apply their passion, riders put new twists on both competitive and recreational riding. Racing technology migrated to the street, creating not only faster, but safer motorcycles. With the advent of small and light offroad bikes, trials riding went mainstream, prompting legions of new riders to head to the country. The personalized choppers of the ’60s and ’70s inspired a new class of factory specials and cruisers, and new categories like adventure touring have energized motorcycling, bringing a new breed of adventure-seeking rider into the fold. Silent and powerful electric-powered motorcycles have suddenly become a reality, tapping into yet another vein of interest and creating new opportunities not just for riding, but for applying technology to the motorcycle.

Yet it’s not all about what’s new. Seasoned motorcyclists increasingly look to the past for inspiration, and motorcycling’s rich history is drawing a fresh generation of enthusiasts who are discovering for the first time the simple, elemental appeal of vintage motorcycles. Their interests have rippled through the industry and manufacturers are paying attention, producing retro-themed motorcycles that appeal to those riders, new as well as old. The motorcycle landscape is richer than it’s ever been, and today’s rider can choose from a variety of machines yesterday’s motorcyclist could never have imagined.

An unwavering enthusiasm for the value of the motorcycle, for its contributions to us individually and culturally, underpins every page of Discovering the Motorcycle. A celebration of every aspect of motorcycling, from why we ride to what we ride, from where we started to where we’re going, it’s a book only an enthusiast could have written.

510 pages, $44.99. To order your copy go to discoveringthemotorcycle.com